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Happy Birthday Ernest Hemingway

Rob had been missing the birthdays. So here’s one. Ernest won the Nobel Prize, mainly for THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA. Harvey Mansfield devotes a significant amount of space to that book in his on manliness. But I myself can’t really tell either how great or how manly that book is. I can read only so much into man vs. fish stories.
Ernest’s life did exhibit two manly qualities--lots of effort at dramatic displays and a certain whininess. That’s neither good nor bad in itself, except for the suicide part. Let me know whether Hemingway really was either a great writer or a good man.

Discussions - 9 Comments

I can't answer Peter's question, but I can categorically say that his was a great day on which to be born.

I always struggled with the Old Man and the Sea as well but do like the the dual analysis of manliness and wandering in his war novels...although I'm tempted to say his account is less deep than maybe Percy's. Regarding the question of what kind of man he is, you might check out the biographical vignette in Paul Johnson's Intellectuals which is pretty austere but also illuminating.

“The Old Man and the Sea” considers the question of whether or not one can be manly when one’s audience is other than human or, in other words, the issue of whether or not manliness is partially made by the human response to it. In this story, Hemingway raises the possibility that there is an essentially solitary quality about manly acts whether they are performed in isolation or with others. He seems to entertain the possibility that the more manly action is the one performed alone, in the absence of an audience. (Of course, one can be completely absorbed in an act in the presence of an audience to the point that its presence is registered only as mute background.)

I wonder if this isn’t one of the points of Hemingway’s allusion to DiMaggio – to suggest a comparison between Santiago and DiMaggio and a contrast between them. There are no fixed means of keeping score for the solitary fisher (or for the writer of fiction). The equivalent of the field (the sea, or as Santiago refers to it, in explicitly rejecting the term el mar, la mar) is itself alive and (it would seem) female: “if she did wild or wicked things it was because she could not help them.” (One hopes that this is not his assessment of feminine morality in general.)

For Hemingway, female nature (as represented by the sea in the story) seems almost to define risk – particularly the risk of being unable to assert oneself successfully or, at least, to assert oneself to one’s satisfaction (for assertion in vain is always possible) in the midst of nature. The issue of what “success” means in this context is a whole other question.

Hemingway was not a great writer. He may have been a good man. It would be nice if the lack of greatness invariably entailed goodness. The “Old Man and the Sea” is a successful piece of popular literature -- a little too successful. HM’s characteristically wonderful and illuminating reading of it,however, makes it something more than that.

Suzanne, thanks so much for a comment so much more deep and serious than the post, especially on the question of solitary manliness and feminine nature. It's true enough that manliness or magnanimity aspires to self-sufficiency. And Ivan, it makes sense to say that Ernest was alive to wandering but didn't fully understand it.

A also thank Suzanne for her illuminating comment, that clarifies for me HM's use of "Old Man" in Manliness. Manliness as Peter says would at the peak have to be itself, "though to itself it only live and die." But just as EH probably didn't understand the deep truth about wandering he probably also didn't understand fully the honor implied in magnanimity, or the honor of God.

I liked Hemimgway's short stories as a callow youth, ones like "A Clean Well-Lighted Place." I also liked the evocation of place and mood in "A Moveable Feast," about Paris in the 20's. But he didn't have staying power.

Did Patrick Deneen mean to suggest yesterday was his birthday? If so, belated thanks to the gods for that day.

I'm dense enough to have missed Dr. Pat's veiled reference to his own natality. Happy Birthday Patrick!

Peter, that's a more precise formulation than mine. Hemingway always struck me as inclined to think that manliness peaked with nihilist assertion...that he ultimately settled for some account of authenticity at the expense of transcendence.

Hemingway was a good man. He hated bulls. Good men hate bulls.

He wrote. He wrote often. He drank. He drank often.

Hemingway lived many years, then he shot himself.

My general intuition is that he was a very good if not quite great writer but maybe not as good a man....for all his manly ambition and courage (he famously explained his entire ethic with the pithy phrase "grace under pressure") he was intemperately opposed to all religion, especially catholicism, was known as brazenly dishonest (especially about his service in WW1), was less than politically astute (did his stint as apologist for the Communist Party and the Soviet Union), was comically petty about regarding his artistic peers/competitors, and ultimately unable to consummate his wandering life with something more purposeful than great excess and suicide. However, those who know much more than I do tell me his literary impact was transformative.

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